My Musings on Oriental Jazz

Ever since I was young, I unconsciously steered my musing to the likes of Billie Holiday and Ray Charles. I would spend days on end polishing my jazz vinyl records and the second the needle hit that vinyl player, I would shift into my happy bubble of swing and bebop. To this day, I am still an unabashed fan of jazz. I find it to be the finest expression of the human experience, to me, it is fantasy with an order. Depending on its groove, it either breathes or steals your breath.

Photography by Aya Tarabeine

A couple of years later, on September 3rd of 2021, I woke up to the sound of my mom’s thrilled excitement for receiving two tickets to a Lena Chamamyan Concert. She insisted I go with her even though I have never listened to oriental jazz let alone Arabic music before. Chamamyan is a Syrian artist who was famously known for mixing jazz and classical Armenian music. At 9:15 pm, she was about to perform at the Dubai World Trade Centre, bringing forth a revival of her Syrian and Armenia folkloric songs. Chamamyan opened her concert with her song ‘Bali Ma’ak’, and I was utterly mesmerized by her ability to blend traditional music of the Middle East with instruments of the West. So much of my enchantment was to the way she has made use of traditional music, by smoothly mixing these two genres.

The way Chamamyan’s sincere vocals were in sync with the chanting of the rest of the audience left me feeling at ease and in complete peace.  She successfully created a harmonious soundscape with subtle shades and hues of jazz rhythms and harmonisations. This left the crowd and I chanting traditional songs together. Interestingly, this phenomenon could be explained by the works of Yingying Hou at East China Normal University, who discovered evidence of ‘inter-brain coherence’, when an audience is enjoying a piece of music at a concert. Overall, he postulated that the degree of synchrony in music tends to predict how much the audience would report enjoying itc. To me, this was a real reminder that how we are all truly interconnected at the deep fibres of our being.

Photography by Aya Tarabeine

Reflecting on Chamamyan’s crystalized voice, its boldness conveyed the flood of emotions put into her work, and her lamenting vocals made me feel melancholic. A string of nostalgia hit me, with a sincere yearning, to visit my hometown of Damascus again. As she sang “Love in Damascus”, I became enchanted by her electrified soprano, like a chisel striking hard ice.  I found a sense of rebellion in her courage to blend the old with the new, standing out by blending jazz, folk, and oriental styles which allowed me to reflect on the diverse nature of music. Her voice sang out in protest the suffering happening back in my hometown of Damascus. Chamamyan’s Oriental Jazz carried the sweetness of the Damascene life while enduring a strain diaspora. She courageously opened a gateway to her soul and gave me the courage to be vulnerable about how much I miss home.

The last track played was a song called ” Candy Cotton “, and it was dedicated to my people and especially the children who have lost their lives back in Syria. It made me realize how sometimes we need to go through the tough times to see the light at the end of the tunnel, this is a shared human experience. I found this song to have had an extra plaintive ring by beautifully painting the suffering many have endured in leaving their home country, and it sweetly ends with a special line from John Lennon being “Imagine all the people living life in peace”.

Two hours and twenty numbers later, with the concert coming to an end, I was left in tears. I think the reason I resonated so much with oriental jazz was that I found it vigorous yet restrained thus harmonising with my personality which can be outgoing yet quite anxious at times. I truly believe that I did not find oriental jazz, but it came to me at a time when I needed it most. This experience has taught me that so much of the power of music lies in its ability to hit different chords in everyone. I have been feeling homesick for months on end, and as strange and beautiful as it can be, oriental Jazz has led me back home. Multifarious and diverse, yet unifying in sound, my musing on this music have become infinite.

You can also check out Aya Tarabeine’s “Your Brain Uncovered” Podcast below

Written by Aya Tarabeine

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